Late to launch: the come-home kids

What it takes for young people to find their purpose in life

They are called "generation Y," "the global generation," "the millennials," "the net generation" — even "the dumbest generation."

They are boomerang children who have returned to live in the bedrooms they grew up in — a generation without a purpose or a direction. By societal standards, they have failed to launch.

"Failure is a harsh word; it's more of a delay that we see among a lot of young people these days," Stanford University professor William Damon said.

Damon, professor of adolescent development at Stanford's School of Education, is the author of "The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life," a book published this year and based on research from his Youth Purpose Project.

The Youth Purpose Project, run out of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, is dedicated to studying how youth develop and hold onto a sense of purpose.

Whether termed a failure or a delay, the lack of purpose young people are accused of having isn't a new phenomenon, Damon said. It is more pronounced, though.

"I'm sure that there were always young people drifting, but I think the problem is aggravated today," he said. "There are more young people who are uncertain — in a state of limbo — than in recent generations.

"One in five young people in their teens and early 20s have a real sense of direction. On the other extreme, approximately one in four hasn't really found anything and isn't really looking. ... That leaves a lot of people in the middle; 55 or 60 percent of young people are still looking but haven't found their purpose yet."

For previous generations, an overriding sense of societal purpose defined the era. Children of the Depression and World War II have a sense of national purpose built in, Damon said. There was a direction everyone was heading, and they were heading there together.

"Now we are much more self-oriented; there are a million choices in the world now. We are more out for ourselves, and there isn't a readymade sense of national purpose out there anymore. There is an extended period of search because people aren't just falling into readymade callings."

"When I graduated from college, I really had no idea what to do next," said Eric Brandt, a recently boomeranged Menlo Park resident. "There was never a lot of focus on what you were going to do after college."

Brandt graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., in 2005 with a history degree. He spent a couple of years in Minneapolis as program director and exhibits coordinator at a nonprofit history museum, buffing his not-for-profit development credentials.

"I kind of had this vague, overriding idea that's what I wanted to do, but nothing clear-cut," he said.

That vague idea is more commonly felt than expressed. Even the students who don't clearly see their path may publicly state otherwise, according to Jovi Johnston, a guidance counselor at Gunn High School. There's a lot of pressure for young people to know what they want to do, to be sure and certain.

"Ninety percent of my seniors say they know what they want to do, but they really have 10 different ideas," she said. "They feel pressure from their peers or parents to know."

The pressure can be frustrating and fickle.

"There's a lot of indirect pressure from people," Crystal Espinosa, a Stanford sophomore, said. When she first got to Stanford, she said many of her fellow freshmen seemed to know what they wanted to do.

"I always compared myself to these people and asked, 'What's wrong with me?'" she said.

A bright student from a small town, she excelled in academic as well as athletics in high school. Her teachers and peers had high expectations for her.

"In your first year, they always ask what your major is. They didn't really understand when I said I was undecided," she said. "Now, when I say anthropology and Spanish, they're like, 'What are you going to do with that?'"

Damon categorizes directionless young people into two groups: those with a goal who haven't started the legwork to get there and those who haven't landed upon a goal because they have a wide variety of interests.

"In high school, I had a lot of interests and was pretty good at a number of things," Jason Shen said.

A fifth-year student, getting his masters in biology at Stanford, Shen still isn't sure how he wants to focus those interests.

"I don't want to be a doctor," he said. "I got interested in global poverty and global health a few years ago, and then I got involved in a nonprofit."

He is the executive director of Gumball Capital, a student-run organization that tries to move people towards careers in social entrepreneurship and microfinance.

Still, he said he's not set on heading in that direction.

"There's a big focus on doing what you love, doing what your passionate in. But what if you have more than one interest or passion?"

Damon calls people like Shen "dilettantes" and says they make up a large number of the young people without a clear path.

"They have done a whole bunch of things," he said, "but they can't answer the question, 'Why have they done them?' or 'What are they leading to?'"

Brandt, the former history-museum program director, has tried to balance nonprofit work with his passion for photography.

"I'm gravitating towards nonprofit development, fundraising and management," he said. "But I also have this thing with photography going, and I'm trying to see if I could get a career in that. I have these two different interests pulling at me."

When a Minneapolis bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River in 2007, Brandt was there with his camera. And when the Republican National Convention came to town in September, Brandt was there as well.

He has contributed photos to the Associated Press that have been published in dailies across the nation.

In early 2008, he quit his job, flew to Cambodia and worked for four months as a photographer for Kiva, a San Francisco-based microfinance institution. It was a gig that combined his interest in nonprofit work with his penchant for taking pictures. Ideal perhaps, but short-term and voluntary.

So, this fall, Brandt moved back into his parents' Menlo Park home, into his childhood room. He's working part-time at Borders book store while looking for a permanent nonprofit job.

"People tell you to follow your dreams and do what you want to when you grow up," he said. "If I thought that way, I'd try to be a photographer, but I am trying to be practical and earn a living."

There are two aspects to finding a purpose, Damon said.

"It requires that dream, that passion because you need to find meaning and happiness," he said. "But, at the same time, it has to be realistic and pragmatic. It involves getting to know the field and yourself well enough to pursue real possibilities."

Youth is a time when experimentation is expected and accepted; it is the time to really pursue that dream.

"When you're young, you can try out a bunch of stuff," he said, "but you should be moving toward something, not just drifting around.

"At some point you have to say, 'This is what I want to accomplish, how I want to contribute to the world.'"

Lance Choy, director of the Career Development Center at Stanford, helps students match their talents to a possible career.

He's been working with students for 20 years and said around 2,500 students make appointments with his center each year.

He's not sure career uncertainty has increased over the last 20 years, but he said the related anxiety certainly has.

"The tolerance for ambiguity has decreased over time," he said, but the ambiguity is normal. "Those super people with really clear purposes — those are rare."

Stanford students are smart, hardworking and dedicated, but "a young person doesn't always know what's important to them," he said.

"A lot of Stanford kids have led a highly structured life to get into the university. It hasn't been as much about what you enjoy doing."

A student works for 18 years to get into a school, and when they get there, they look around and realize they don't know where to go from here; it can be a bit of a shock, Damon said.

"The goals go from being very clear to being very unclear," Shen said.

Espinosa echoed this sentiment.

"My parents were always telling me that I needed to go to school to get a better life," she said. "That was the goal: Get to college."

When she arrived on Stanford's door step with a prestigious Gates Scholarship, that goal was checked off.

"First it was 'Work really hard to get to college,'" Espinosa said, "and now I'm here and I'm not sure what I want to do."

"College used to be a means to get you where you wanted to go, to what you wanted to do," Gunn guidance counselor Johnston said. "Now students focus on college and graduate school and less on what they want to do afterwards."

A first-generation college student, Espinosa said she was never "exposed to people with college educations and careers growing up. So, I don't really know what's out there as an option beyond the doctor, dentist, lawyer track."

This exposure should happen in high school or even middle and elementary school, Johnston said.

Her colleague, Lynne Navarro, agreed.

"We focus on finding a purpose, some, but not enough," Navarro said. "We want students to understand some of everything so they can see there are all of these things out there. Some see them as hoops they have to jump through instead of educational opportunities."

"A lot of the priority of schools is on things kids don't find very inspiring. They are important but they aren't the end; they aren't the purpose of schools," Damon said.

"One school in the area has a very thoughtful program getting kids to think about what kind of person they want to be. They look at all the curricula and see how it fits with what you want to achieve. They don't just teach science but about the lives of scientists, the ethics of science. They engage with exemplars."

Navarro uses guests and real-world examples in her small, niche class called Focus on Success, which is dedicated to helping students set short- and long-term goals and achieving them.

It's a small class, and she said she has the space and time to delve deep into topics and bring in guests to expose the students to different careers and other aspects of the world.

It's a luxury, she said. "In the average class there's not a lot of room to do that."

According to Johnston, high school might even be too late to start the career development process.

"We need to focus on lifestyles and careers at a younger age," she said. "We can take elementary students and expose them to different careers. A lot of that is left until high school, which, along with college and everything else, is a lot of information to fit into four years."

Brandt, Espinosa and Shen agree and expressed a shared desire that the focus on what to do in life start earlier.

"There need to be more opportunities to see what the real world is like," Shen said. "There are so many things you don't even know about. That's why people want to be doctors; they can visualize themselves walking down a hallway in a white coat."

"If there were a curriculum that exposed kids to careers so they could really see them as options, it might help motivate them to think about how to parlay what they're interested in into a job or career," Espinosa said. "Or at least help narrow the focus."

Exploring the options is only part of the equation, Damon and Choy said.

It's also about developing a sense of self and how that is going to fit into the rest of the world, Damon said.

"It is important for people to get an internal compass of their own so they have an answer to the questions, 'What is your life going to be?' 'What is your ultimate concern in life?' 'What are your goals, your higher goals?'" he said.

Students have to make time for reflection, to see what they've learned about themselves, Choy said.

"You have to see where you really fit in, what makes you happy," he said. "I rarely get a student that says balance in life is important."

"A lot of people are driven by the status of a vocation," Espinosa said. "They don't seem to be able to separate happiness from money. Making money isn't my goal; I want to be happy, and being rich isn't as important."

Finding what makes a young person happy may take him or her a while.

"It may take you until your late 20s to figure out what you want to do with your life but if you're moving forward you'll get there," Damon said.

For many on the academic track, graduate school is a comfortable way to delay necessary decision making.

"I'm not sure what I want to do, so graduate school sounds good," Espinosa said.

"I'll spend the next five years doing interesting stuff and then go to business school," Shen echoed.

Graduate school's the new undergraduate school, Damon said. "It may give young people the necessary time to figure things out."

"It's what a lot of liberal arts graduates tend to do — work for a couple of years and go to grad school," Brandt said.

Three and half years out of college, he has tried his hand at a variety of pursuits.

"I have been doing so many different things to see if there is something out there that grabs me but nothing has yet," he said. "I want to focus and find a path, but I want it to be something I like and enjoy."

To find that "something," he has to be willing to take risks and possibly fail.

"Failure can be a positive thing, believe it or not," Damon said. "You learn through failure. ... If you try things out, it doesn't reflect on you as a person whether or not you succeed. You need to develop in kids a positive attitude about failing. Too many parents and teachers don't understand that."

Choy works with students who, for their whole educational careers, have had the mindset of "you have to take a class and get an A to go to a top school," he said.

"And when they do not do well, it can be devastating."

Damon's calling for a shift in mindset for students, schools and society. The current way of thinking about life is not leading young adults on that path to purpose.

"The mass culture operates on very superficial and trivial indicators of success," he said. "People aren't looking deeply enough to understand the real aspirations of young people, where the real talents lie. We're not providing the right kind of guidance to help kids."

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Posted by Tamar Chansky
a resident of another community
on Dec 13, 2008 at 6:14 am

When we push children to achieve for external reasons-- getting the right grades, to get into the right college, to get the right job, we are eclipsing their personal investment-- so it isn't surprising that they may graduate college without a sense of purpose-- doing something because it is meaningful has never been a valued variable in the equation of their lives-- it's just about success.

I absolutely agree that failure is an important experience to destigmatize for our children-- otherwise they are afraid to try anything, and I think that is what we are seeing, kids stalled by fear (in part because their parents have taught them to avoid it like the plague). I write about these ideas in my new book, Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking:Powerful, Practical Strategies to Build a Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility and Happiness. Parents need to learn other options besides choreographing their children's failure-free lives-- it's not possible, and it doesn't work.

Tamar Chansky

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Posted by Perspective
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 13, 2008 at 7:29 am

Don't know you or your book, but looks good.

Perhaps in addition to your sentiment, there is also the phenomena I have seen of parents protecting their kids SO MUCH from the boo-boos of life, from the very acts that make our kids independent, that the kids never develop the confidence it takes to take flight.

I mean, many of our kids had to work at a fast food restaurant in High School to pay for their leisure activities, let alone make ends meet, or even had to do chores around the house to earn their allowance? How many kids had to pay the price of failing an exam because they slept through it, forgetting to set their alarm maybe? Or had to go hungry at lunch because they forgot to bring their lunch or their lunch money..Mom always happily rescuing them from their forgetfulness? Or getting a worse grade on their projects because they waited till the last minute..but Mom or Dad helps them type it up and "rescues" them again?

For right or for wrong, I grew up knowing I was going to sink or swim at 18...Period. By the time I was 16, I was making all my own decisions, and paying the price for any screw ups. I rely on that inner strength I developed at that time in my life even today when I face troubles. To the tune of "I was doing this, that etc at 16, at 18, at 20, so I can certainly manage this!".

I see all kinds of rescuing of kids and teens in the schools by well meaning parents who are simply crippling their kids' abilities to develop the strength of their wings.


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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 13, 2008 at 8:44 am


I agree so wholeheartedly with what you are saying and it is so not Palo Alto. I suspect that I fall somewhere between what you describe and the norm.

Palo Alto kids are so priviledged and just do not realise it. It is often hard to get a teenager to babysit, unless it is on a regular basis, because they are so busy with extra curricula activities which sound good on college apps, but babysitting does not. It is hard for them to get a Saturday morning job of mowing lawns because nearly everyone has their own gardeners. My kids do not like bringing friends home because they don't have the cool toys, the video games or the junk snacks, that their friends have so they go to friends' homes. We have given our kids pay as you go phones and when they run out of money for the month, that is it, they no longer have a phone til the next month. It makes them use the landlines and it makes them careful how much they use them, but it does mean that they feel really bad when they can't download cool games and ring phones like their friends.

My kids don't get what their friends get materially speaking. They also have had to do their own homework and projects from very young. They have seen their own hard work displayed in a classroom open house beside work which has been done by parents, and seen the response of their classmates, and been really hurt by it.

In Palo Alto, it is really hard to let your kids struggle to do it themselves. Those lower income families are often the ones that struggle the most to give the kids some of the most stuff so it appears that their kids are "just as good", so it is not just the wealthy attitude. The kids without the "stuff" and without the helicopter parents, don't realise the benefits they really have.

A few years ago, one of my kids went on an overnight field trip to the gold country with his class. At the same site, there was a private school doing the same trip. This private school came from Bakersfield or somewhere, and all the kids were in school uniform. My kid and his friends came back telling me all about the soccer game they played with this group of rich kids from a private school. Their only basis for determining that this other group were rich was that they were a private school and wore a uniform. It seems pretty ironic that our Palo Alto privileged kids felt themselves less wealthy than a private school from a small town when all they had to judge with was what they were wearing.

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Posted by Geoffrey Pope
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 13, 2008 at 8:51 am

I'm glad you're not blaming us, this abysmal "Generation Y," for the fragmenting developments our society has faced over the past 10 years— a seminal period for us younger folks.

I think the "rescue" generation of parents you speak of has also been greatly affected by these changes. The urge to nurture in a fragmented human being easily transforms into a more primal, "protective" set of frameworks—engineered through years of conditioning to adapt to rapid shifts in ideologies and social pressures.

The easily-damned "self esteem" movement of the early 1990s was similarly transformed into what is now seen as a breeding ground laissez-faire at its worst.

The sense of optimism, localized to specific industries and commodities, but also distilled for children by comparatively positive views of this country, has been dashed— in a discrete sense by 9/11 and more broadly by economic downturns and wars founded on misinformation and deceit. No wonder we are more cynical, no wonder we tend to avoid concretizing and so often seek avenues for escape from the contemporary to varying degrees of damage.

No, we cannot blame our parents for their justifiable attempts to shield us. The "singular moral purpose" is lost to many of us, because so often goal-oriented behavior is dichotomized into materialistic or nonviable categories. How many parents want their daughter to marry a man who lives in a hovel because he spends his time reconstructing damaged villages in the Balkans? Who doesn't question the motives and substance of a woman who quickly rises to the top of an international jewelry syndicate?

We're expected to find both pragmatic and spiritual subsistence and sustenance in our "purposes" (which to all above intents seem to mean careers), and that's an inevitable product of the values and experiences of the two generations preceding ours.

One of my best friends recently said in all seriousness that "nobody wants their child to end up with a musician as their partner." I took immediate offense at this remark, because as a composer and conductor who has already begun an international opera career and will soon be eligible for professorship, I see myself as quite respectable. My latest projects have had to do with addressing recent genocides and techniques of dehumanization, and my work has been supported by some of the leading figures on that front. I have honed my abilities continually since I was six— without overpraise from my parents, but the knowledge that they believed in me— and have felt for many years completely purposeful. It is not a "singular moral purpose" driven by insecurity or other pressures, it is my life, and it is significant. At the time, my best friend was taking a quarter off from Stanford, still unsure— in what would have been his fourth year—
why he was there. This is a broad thinker, an intelligent person with an extraordinarily wide skill set. His answer came to him several months ago, and he is now working for an alternative energy company, combining his rigorous engineering training and interest in global politics. I have never seen him so self-actuated, and he, too, is a product of these times: a person so highly motivated, self-critical and talented, finally reaching his own self-actualized sense of purpose. Maybe "mindfulness" is a better word.

His torment— one could even call it some sort of existential depression!— was certainly exacerbated by the categorizations by which this generation has been victimized. Motivation and "unmotivation" are not so psychologically distinct— they are manifestations of a sort of internal synthesis of external conditions. The burden transferred to this generation comes in the way of hypocritical responses to our fragmentation (sometimes called developmental analysis), and they are detrimental. We did not start any wars, we did not invent the internet, we didn't crash the stock market, we didn't invent penicillin or defeat the Nazis or march on Washington or land on the moon, but we are carving our niches throughout this world. It is ours, briefly, to inherit, and so much will change. I have no choice but to be optimistic, and I think that might help things a bit.

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Posted by Reymundo
a resident of another community
on Dec 15, 2008 at 7:11 am

Just to provide a little perspective, remember that around 15 years ago, there was a slew of media coverage talking about Generation X, who were supposedly a bunch of unambitious slackers who would ruin this country. Then a lot of these lazy 20-somethings grew up and became upstanding citizens, and the Internet boom came along, and the slacker stereotype was replaced one of the precocious dot-com gazillionaire.

So while I acknowledge that some of the observations made about "Generation Y" might be true, bear in mind that respectable middle-aged types getting exasperated at 20-somethings for not having their act together has probably been going on for centuries. Not so long from now, Generation Y will be complaining about Generation Z.

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Posted by Rob
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 15, 2008 at 8:52 am

Look at the generation in power/aging now. Leadership is zero and corrupt. Stupidity is accepted and prized, especially if you are stupid and make lots of money. This generation's president is a monkey at best. Idiots are highly respected for their gambling achievments, ie. dot com and housing bubble gains and are pretty much a waste of oxygen otherwise.

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Posted by Bonnie Goodman
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 15, 2008 at 5:30 pm

As a Palo Alto Career Counselor in private practice, I have spent the last 20+ years guiding hundreds of teens and young adults through the career decision-making process. In my experience, the most helpful place to start is to encourage individuals to go through a formal self assessment process, to discover who they are and how they best work. This entails looking at: one's cognitive/personal style, motivated skills, the themes of their interests and to articulate their beliefs and values, all which have a direct implication for choosing work. I describe it as first taking an 'internal snapshot' before going out to explore external options.

Trends over the years have revealed that these 20-somethings believe that they must find the 'perfect' career, which they should stay with their entire lives. This expectation comes with undue stress and and anxiety. Research has proven that the average person makes 2-3 major career transitions in their lives, and it is important to stay focused on: "What would be a good fit for this first career choice?"

It is necessary to teach this age group them that not every interest can or needs to be utilized in a single career. By designing a 'work-life' plan they can define which interests they want to incorporate in their work/career while others remain as hobbies.

Every parent can recall those 'All About Me' Journals, whereby teachers will ask children to describe what job they see themselves doing when they grow up. Recently I found my 20 year old daughter's 2nd grade biography, and her answer to this career question was: 'I Want to Make Got Milk Commercials'. We laughed about this, as her first college major was Advertising. Now she is leaning towards Psychology. Some ideas 'stick' but more often, parents should be prepared that things will change, and that is typical. Navigating through the world of work is a process, not a means to an end.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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